Gove’s Plans for A-Level Reform

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February 4, 2013 by lambethteachers

The latest target in Michael Gove’s blitzkrieg is to restrict post-16 academic studies once again to 3 A-levels. There is no educational justification for this move, simply elitist Conservative nostalgia. Gove is some kind of zombie who feeds on nostalgia for a mythical golden age.

The A-level system was introduced 60 years ago, and required sixth formers to specialise in just three subjects from age 16-18. In those days most chose either sciences and maths (e.g. Maths, Physics and Chemistry) or three ‘arts subjects’ (e.g. English Literature, French and History). Later more subjects were added, such as Sociology, Psychology, Law or Media Studies, but still a high degree of specialisation.

Gove now wants to give more points to ‘traditional subjects’, the Russell Group universities’ list of ‘facilitating subjects’. This is based simply on their advice to 16 year olds interested in winning a place on one of their degrees to keep their options open by choosing two A-levels out of English, Maths, Sciences, History, Geography and Languages. (So that’s where Gove got his EBac!) That is the only rationale – it has no other educational justification.

There has been a wide consensus for half a century that the A-level system is far too specialised. In most countries students continue with a broad range of subjects and almost all continue to study the national language, a foreign language, maths and sciences, along with their chosen specialisms. Not all of these require a written exam. In Scotland, 17 year olds choose five subjects, usually including English and Maths. They continue or retake some the next year but often with one or two other subjects.

There have been various attempts to reform the A-level system. The earliest was General Studies, a fourth A-level which involved a broad range of scientific, cultural and political knowledge. Unfortunately many universities refused to count it. Many schools have experimented with the International Baccalaureate. The Tomlinson Review recommended a similar system but with the scope to mix in more practical work-related studies. Finally, the compromise was to introduce AS levels: 5 subjects for one year, narrowing to 3 the next.

Nobody in government has given any thought to whether this will deter students from post-16 academic study. Nobody has thought about how this relates to other post-16 studies. In Norway for example, the 90% who continue in education can opt for a general academic course or a vocational specialism, but both are available in the same college. Both sets of student continue with Norwegian, English, Maths and some science and social studies, and those on the vocational track can switch part way through if they want to go to university.

Government ministers are also trying to turn the clock back in terms of assessment methods. Universities now use diverse forms of assessment, but Gove the Terminator believes the only proper way is to sit down for three hours regurgitating all you can remember about the Corn Law or the plot of Pride and Prejudice. It is a form of assessment which puts factual recall above thinking and creativity.

 Elitist nostalgia is based on selective memory. In 1969, when Gove the Terminator was only two years old, the English Faculty at Cambridge University switched to open-book exams!   




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